Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Albuquerque Fire Rescue responds to about 8,000 car crashes a year.
It may soon start sending bills for some of that work.
Mayor Tim Keller’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2020 includes a new “cost recovery” channel for AFR’s response to automobile fires and to car crashes that require hazardous material cleanup or extractions.
The fees – set out in a proposed update of the city’s fire code ordinance – run $400 for hazard mitigation and cleanup to $1,305 for use of “heavy rescue tools and other equipment” to remove someone from a vehicle.
The department could also bill $400 per hour for any additional time on the scene under the plan.
Officials say it passes the cost of more involved interventions directly to those who required them. Critics argue it’s charging more for municipal services ostensibly already funded by taxes.
“The whole purpose of government is to take care of its citizens, and this is like ‘Oh, now we’re going to go ahead and bill you over here.’ Jeez,” said state Rep. Bill Rehm, an Albuquerque Republican, who objects to the plan.
But City Councilor Trudy Jones, also a Republican, said while the fee resembles a second tax, she supports the idea.
“We can either do it that way, where the people who use it pay for it, or we can do it where all the taxpayers pay for it,” she said.
If approved by the City Council, the fee would come just a year after the city raised taxes with a promise that most of the money – 60 percent – would go to public safety. The three-eighths of 1 percentage point gross receipts tax increase enacted last year is expected to yield $57.9 million in 2020.
But the mayor said it is not enough.
“Our resources are incredibly drained, and we’re trying to recover from a decade-long shortage of investments in first responders,” Keller said in an interview.
More than half of the tax increase revenue is going into police department initiatives, according to his administration’s latest report to the City Council.
AFR received a budget increase this year, too. It covered 19 new positions, including seven in the field.
But Keller said this fee would boost a fire department tasked with an increasing workload.
“Anything we can do for public safety, we need to do right now without question,” he said.
The proposed cost recovery fee could yield up to $1 million in new revenue annually, according to budget documents, and the department would use it to fund 12 new firefighters in the field. It is the only line item in the current budget proposal directly tied to hiring new field personnel, though Keller is also proposing to increase the department’s general fund allocation by 11.5 percent – or $9.6 million – for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
While the 12 field firefighter positions are currently linked to the fee, the budget – which remains subject to revision – also assumes 13 additional uniformed positions for other assignments inside the department.
Adam Eakes, AFR deputy chief for planning and logistics, said it is unknown how many of the 8,000 car crashes AFR responds to annually would meet the criteria for the bill because the department has not previously tracked incident severity in its records.
“But we’re confident we won’t be billing for every accident,” Eakes said.
As currently written, the proposed ordinance would allow the city to bill the “responsible party” after a qualifying event.
If that person lives in the city, has insurance and the city knows which company, it would send the bill to the insurance company.
Nonresidents, however, may get billed directly, unless the city knows which insurance company they have.
“The focus will be on billing insurance companies and not the citizens living within the metropolitan area,” Keller wrote Council President Klarissa Peña this month explaining the plan.
Bills not paid within 30 days can go to a collection agency and face added interest fees and other penalties, according to the language in the proposed ordinance.
Eakes cited the 19 hours AFR spent off-loading fuel from an overturned fuel tanker in 2018 as one impetus for this proposal.
“Those are resources that are pulled out of districts to handle that operation that would otherwise respond to 911 calls within their respective districts,” he said. “And in that case specifically, it was a free service extended to that company.”
Emergency response fees have drawn some criticism in other American communities with opponents arguing that citizens already pay taxes for such services.
Some states, like Missouri and Arkansas, banned charges like the one proposed in Albuquerque.
But they have become so commonplace around the U.S. that private companies exist to provide the associated billing services.
Rep. Rehm said he does not recall any attempts to ban such fees in his 13 years in the New Mexico Legislature. But he said he opposes this Albuquerque proposal.
“What are we going to do after this?” he said, asking if the police department would be the next to send a bill for its response to a traffic crash.
But Fire Chief Paul Dow said billing insurance companies for more complex work makes sense.
“If you were at fault (for a crash) and all that antifreeze, oil, gas or whatever leaked out onto the street, that’s yours. That’s not mine, not the city of Albuquerque’s, yet we’re cleaning it up,” he said. “We’re mitigating that hazard and the insurance company has a mechanism in which to reimburse us for that and we’re just taking advantage of that and using the cost recovery and putting the money back into our firefighters on the streets.”
As presently written, the fire chief has discretion to waive or reduce the amount of an invoice if the recipient can demonstrate financial hardship or inability to pay.
One city councilor said he is still trying to understand the implications of the plan, including whether it could potentially increase residents’ insurance rates.
“There’s going to be a lot of discussion and debate when it does come to council,” Brad Winter said.
Dow said the new personnel funded through the fee would help alleviate some staffing challenges in his department. AFR needs 165 people on duty for each of the department’s three daily shifts but sometimes has only 171 available per shift, making it hard to meet the minimum when anyone is off.
“It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it does help us,” Dow said. “It provides an additional buffer.”